(Reuters) – Iran’s president vowed on Wednesday to defend Shi’ite holy sites in Iraq, where Sunni militants battled their way into the biggest oil refinery in what is rapidly turning into a sectarian war across the frontiers of the Middle East.
Sunni fighters were in control of three quarters of the territory of the Baiji refinery north of Baghdad, an official said there, after a morning of heavy fighting at gates defended by elite troops under siege for a week.
A lightning advance has seen Sunni fighters rout the Shi’ite-led government’s army and seize the main cities across the north of the country since last week.
The fighters are led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant which aims to build a caliphate ruled on mediaeval precepts, but also include a broad spectrum of more moderate Sunnis furious at what they see as oppression by Baghdad.
Washington and other Western capitals are trying to save Iraq as a united country by leaning hard on Shi’ite Prime Minister to reach out to Sunnis. Maliki met Sunni and Kurdish political opponents overnight, concluding with a frosty, carefully-staged joint appearance at which an appeal for national unity was read out.